The Havana Orphans

In 1896 tuberculosis (TB) left seven of our ancestors orphaned in Havana. Like many parts of the world at the time, late nineteenth-century Havana was no stranger to the ravages of TB.

From The Return of the White Plague: Global Poverty and the ‘new’ Tuberculosis by Gandy and Zumla: “In the five years that preceded the outbreak of war (1890-94), TB accounted for a full 20% of certified deaths in the city. With the extreme deprivation, starvation, and crowding that accompanied the onset of war, however, TB assumed new, epidemic proportions.”

In 1892, TB took Manuel Velez from his family. Four years later in November of 1896, TB would take Regla as well, leaving seven children to fend for themselves.

Fortunately the Velez children were surrounded by family and they were quickly shepherded off the chaotic island to Brooklyn.

Here’s what we know about the orphans:

Manuel is a mystery. He was the oldest male so, following traditional Spanish custom, he would have been the one to take responsibility for the family, even at 14 years of age. I’ve never located Manuel but I strongly suspect he remained in Havana and that his descendants are still there today. Finding Manolo, as he was called, is in my Todo List.

Amelia (12 years old) grew up with relatives in Brooklyn, as you can see in the census records. She later married Eduardo Moreno and ultimately lived out her adult years in Costa Rica. Our cousin Roberto MOreno, who some of you know, is her grandson and he lives in Panama City, Panama.

María de Jesús (11 years old) went back to Havana in 1905 where she died of TB on 10 May  and was buried.

Silvio (9 years old) lived in Brooklyn but he disappears from records until I find ads in the paper indicating he is a delivery man for a Brooklyn bakery in 1905. He married Elizabeth Cooper and had many children, including Sylvia (Dolly), Silvio (Sully), Elizabeth (Betty), and Madeline. Born Silvio, he lived as Sylvester and, more often, Lester.  Lester Velez was known to use the name Lester Palmer (I haven’t figured out where Palmer comes from) and he was a taxi driver in Freeport, New York when he was killed in 1930, which will be covered in another article.

Federico Alberto (6 years old) grew up as Albert or Al. Al and his brother Michael both appear in a Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn a few blocks from their sisters shortly after their arrival from Havana and they seemed to be close to each other their entire lives. Like Silvio, Al was also a driver, listed as a chauffeur in census records.  Oral history tells us “Uncle Al” left Long Island and moved to Los Angeles near the Guesnos after some sort of automobile accident. He also changed his name to Al Palmer and died there in 1959. He and his wife, Cecilia, never had children.

María de la Concepción (7 years old) (Concha or Marie) married Joseph Guesno while Joe was in the Army, had 9 children, and died of TB in 1925 in a sanitorium on Long Island where she had given birth to her youngest, Frances. Most of the Guesno family left Long Island for Los Angeles in the early 1940’s, I believe.

Miguel (4 years old) joined the Army and was affectionately known as Uncle Mike to his Guesno nieces and nephews. He retired from the Army and died at the Soldiers home in DC where he is buried. He never married and had no children.

The trip from Havana to New York was covered by the newspapers and was caught up in the yellow journalism that was gripping newspapers around the country in 1896. I will cover the journey in another article.

So you’re probably reading this as a relative of the Moreno, Velez, or Guesno families. Now you know how you’re connected to your cousins!

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